Archive for February, 2009
In what may have been the world’s quickest visit to Alaska, I abruptly find myself back home. It was planned this way – working in corporate America, I have to budget my meager time off wisely. I must say though, after such a short trip my body is not quite sure what time it is. The wall clock says it’s bedtime, my computer clock (still set on Alaska time) says it’s dinner time, and I think my body is somewhere in between.
Sunday’s plan was to point the car south down the Seward Highway and explore. (If the weather crapped out, the backup plan was to go watch some dog sled races!) The Seward (pronounced “Soo-ard”) is one of only two roads leading out of Anchorage. It takes you south along the Cook Inlet (home of the worlds strongest tides) onto the Kenai Peninsula (pronounced “keen-eye”) and eventually branches off to the towns of Seward, Homer, Kenai, Soldotna, and others. It’s a beautiful drive, but a potentially treacherous one as avalanches are a common occurrence along the road. During my drive I saw the remnants of several avalanches, a couple of which looked severe enough that they may have at some point covered the road.
My first stop was the Alyeska ski resort. I’m not a skiier myself, but the setting was amazingly beautiful and an airplane mechanic at Lake Hood told me I could find some amazing soup at their restuaurant. After the resort, I wandered around the area, following signs to the Girdwood airport which advertised helicopter flightseeing tours. It’s really not much of an airport – since everything is snow-covered, you could drive right past it and completely miss the place save for a couple of Piper SuperCubs practicing their landings – one plane on wheels, the other on skis.
On down the highway I found my way to Portage Glacier – or at least a frozen lake (Portage Lake) that you could walk out upon to take some pictures of the glacier. The visitor center was closed for the winter, and I didn’t have any maps of the area, so at the time I really wasn’t sure exactly where I was going. There was a ranger station just up the road, and I asked myself a couple of times if I should shop there. In the end it didn’t really matter – the splendor of the place – as pure, clean, and unmolested a place I’ve ever been was enough. I’ll let the pictures do the talking when I put them up.. words fail me.
Along the way I stopped at every little tourist trap I could find – out of curiosity more than anything. Honestly, I was still searching for that cup of soup, and by the time I finally found a restaurant that looked promising I needed to head back to Anchorage (not wanting to be out on the avalanche-prone Seward Highway after dark). There was also an interesting looking nature boardwalk on the way back… it too was closed, though someone had crashed through the snowplow berm in front of it with their pickup truck to make a path.
Dinner was at a place in downtown Anchorage called Humpy’s – highly recommended to me for their Halibut Burger, which was excellent. I really wanted to try wild Alaska salmon. I really don’t like seafood, but I figured that since I was in Alaska, I might as well try… you just can’t get seafood like this in Kentucky! But alas, the Halibut won out – for a couple of reasons (one being the other items it was served with and the fact I’d be spending the next few hours on an airplane. Good of me to think of my fellow passengers.) And I finally got my soup – beer cheese and broccoli. Yum…
Frustratingly, Anchorage shuts down early on Sunday nights. In retrospect it shouldn’t be surprising at all. I’ve read that Alaska is the least religious state in the US, so a part of me had hoped businesses would keep the same hours all week long. Not so. I think I drove around for an hour trying to find an open coffee shop. Breaking my “no chain restaurants when I travel” rule, I finally spotted a Barnes & Noble (open ’til 11!), grabbed a cup of coffee, studied various maps of Alaska, end eventually launched into a book about Alaskan bush pilots until it was time to head back to the airport for the 1:30am Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle. I could have spent a forture there. In Kentucky, I was frustrated at how little information the book stores had about Alaska. The Anchorage B&N has an entire Alaska ROOM, stacked floor to ceiling with books and maps.
I do have pictures – bunches of them. I’ll try to put them up soon. But tomorrow it’s’ back to the grind. Corporate America calls. Ugh.
It’s funny. Nobody really thinks much about Alaska, especially since Sarah Palin did not become our vice president. But the Alaskans feel that perhaps too many people are thinking about Alaska. Tonight was an early dinner at Moose Tooth, and over pints and pizza the conversation revolved around the changes taking place in Alaska, particularly in Anchorage. I have some wonderful photos of Anchorage; but take out the mountains and it could be big city anywhere. Alaskans have a problem with that. They love Alaska, and they love the fact that we outsiders (those from the lower 48 ) would travel all this way just to visit. Seriously. Tell someone this is your first trip to Alaska, and they’ll practically invite you over to dinner! But what they don’t appreciate is Wal-Mart, and big highways, and all the other stuff that we outsiders bring with us. Native Alaskans are ferociously proud of their hertiage, and it’s worked quite well for them. They don’t need to be changed – if we want to come to Alaska, then we should learn to function in the Alaskan system. As one guy put it, “I wish the winters would just get colder and longer, so that those pansies would go back south.” Ouch. But I see his point.
Before dinner, I spent the afternoon at Lake Hood, which bills itself as the world’s busiest seaplane base. Lake Hood is unique in that, unlike airports in the rest of the country, one can drive around the airport grounds freely, in and amongst the airplanes. (Airplanes get the right-of-way, of course). Security is lax because people respect the planes. Airplanes are the lifeblood of Alaska – you mess with the planes and someone in the bush doesn’t get their mail, or groceries. It’s a good system, and in Alaska, it works. However, this too could change. Emilie has lived her whole life on Lake Hood, and two days ago the TSA came through and proposed a bunch of changes – to make Lake Hood resemble other airports in the lower 48. That’s bad news, and Emilie’s prediction (and mine too) is that Lake Hood will suffer for it. That’s a shame.
Yet Alaskans are optimistic. Their distance from the lower 48 gives them a unique perspective on things. They can see what works and fails before it gets to them. They are optimistic because this perspective allows them to collectively fight the changes that will endanger their way of life. My buddy from Moose Tooth loves Alaska, and still feels that Anchorage is the greatest city in the world. Emilie still loves Lake Hood, and one day hopes to get her pilot’s license.
Tomorrow, weather permitting, will include a drive down the Seward highway to the Alyeska skit resort. An airplane mechanic at Lake Hood told me to try and grab lunch at the Old Alyeska hotel, where, he says some excellent soup can be found. Then it’s back to Anchorage to explore a bit more and probably find a coffee shop and bury my nose in a book.
I’ve taken a bunch of good pictures, and sadly I don’t have a way to upload them while I’m on the road. Ah well.
After an eventful day of travel, I’ve finally arrived in Anchorage. Due to the time change my body thinks it’s getting close to dinner time, but the sun’s only been up for an hour. It’s going to be an interesting day 🙂 Unfortunately, my first task here is to do a load of laundry. I managed to dump a glass of orange juice on my lap on one of my flights, so I burned through my clean clothes faster than expected.
After returning to Seattle mid-flight due to an electrical problem with the plane, my flight finally arrived in Anchorage at midnight. Though I wish I could see Alaska from the air during the daylight hours, the view was impressive enough. I’ve read that Alaska nights really aren’t that dark (the moon is REALLY bright here) and sure enough, on the flight in, the mountains and all their majesty were in plain view, more beautiful than expected.
On the flights over, I had a couple of really neat seat-mates. One was a business owner from Detroit who was meeting her husband in Seattle for a Microsoft meeting. Her business is flourishing, a rare bright spot in generally dismal Detroit. She and I had a fantastic conversation about business and leadership type of stuff. On my Anchorage flight, I got to know a guy from Georgia. He’d gone to Alaska a couple of times on vacation, and loved it so much that he sold everything he had and went to work on Alaska’s north slope oil fields. He works 3-weeks on, 3-weeks off and is starting a trucking business (with a FedEx competitor) with his son in Tennessee. The I-sold-everything-and-moved-to-Alaska story is a common one around here. Alaska is like that – it draws people, on a whim, who would never have before considered living here.
Right now I’m sitting on the 14th floor of a high-rise hotel. As a FedEx employee, I was upgraded to a corner suite! My view out one window is of the Cook Inlet and the Anchorage Airport, out the other is downtown Anchorage with a mountain backdrop. It’s 5 degrees right now and a marine layer just rolled in, but it’s been a sunny morning so far, and sun and 20-degrees are forecast for the rest of the short (sunrise 9am, sunset 5pm) day. They don’t use much salt here, just sand, so most of the roads are snow-packed, making me extra grateful for the healthy dose of winter weather we’ve had in Kentucky. Anchorage drivers for the most part are very conservative – it seems that no one dares go over the (relatively low) speed limits unless they have 4-wheel-drive. Good thing.
I really hope to make this a relaxing trip, and I came with no agenda. Alaska is so huge, and I have to avoid the temptation to frenzy myself trying to take it all in. So I think this afternoon I’ll venture over to the aviation museum at the airport, and then brave the crowds at Moose Tooth’s for pizza. There’s a Trader Joe’s-type market across the street that I’d like to check out too.